How many of us really listen? How many of us hear but don’t listen?

Listening is an active process of attending to and interpreting aural stimuli.  Effective listening requires an understanding that it is not just the speaker’s responsibility to make sure he/she is understood.

I listen!” Listening studies showed that the majority of people believe they are above-average listeners, despite their listening tests showing the contrary.

“Who cares anyway?”

  • Good listeners are perceived to be more intelligent than bad listeners and use resources more effectively.
  • Good listening promotes achievement and advancement.
  • Good listeners attract friends and partners more easily.
  • Good listeners cultivate quality conversation and intimacy.

What is good listening? It is a skill that can be learned and used at our will. Obviously we have the power to choose who we listen to, when and why, for our long-term benefit.

  1. Good listening begins with paying attention. Show warmth, stop what you are doing, or invite the person to speak in a private space if needed. To get the most from a listening situation, others need to feel that you are interested, and really want to listen. There is delicate trust in this dialogue.
  2. Be still – don’t fidget. Try to eliminate distraction for this moment, or if it’s crucial, address it (eat or pee etc) then listen.
  3. Make appropriate eye contact and body language (studies suggest men may prefer chatting side by side, perhaps in activity, and women prefer eye-to-eye).
  4. Speak only to encourage the Speaker (gently) or probe them (figuratively of course) for more information when appropriate. i.e.  “Tell me more” “What does this mean for you?”
  5. Not interrupting = respect and interest. This shows that you want to hear, not just be heard. Allow the Speaker plenty of time to adequately convey ideas and meaning.  (Note: If you need to interrupt what feels like a very long waffle, there are techniques. The first technique which was discovered in 1589 by a sandwich vendor and…. just kidding!! I’ll get to that).
  6. Listen with the intention to understand the Speaker, be it facts; a perspective; or their feelings. (While you may have an amazing monologue of your own on the topic ready to deliver, it’s probably good to save that little nugget for Ron. Later on).
  7. Listen for the main message. Only 7% of the message is in the actual literal words, the rest is vocal tone, emphasis, facial expression, energy, and body language. Feel what the person is trying to say. If you’re not sure, ask. Reflect. E.g. “It sounds like you’ve a really hard time”  OR “Does this mean that…?”A good listener doesn’t assume that they understand the Speaker, they check that they have understood them completely before making a response of their own.
  8. Listen for what is not said. Often the hardest things to say will be the most important and the most held back.
  9. Empathize. You don’t have to agree with the perspective. You may even need to offer a different perspective at some stage. Just try to feel into what they are experiencing and have understanding. Try to sense what the Speaker really thinks, feels and (if possible) needs. (This does not mean that your point of view doesn’t matter or that you are responsible for their experiences in any way– you are just hearing).

Empathetic responses – this may be neutral or compassionate (reflects an attempt to understand the speaker)

  • Yes, I’m hearing you..
  • Oh, how is that for you?
  • What’s that like?
  • Does that mean.. (reflect main message or thought)
  • That sounds really.. (hard, relieving, inspiring, etc – reflect how the speaker seems to feel about the topic and run it by them) OR
  • You seem (certain, sad, happy, etc enter emotion you are perceiving).. that’s totally understandable../ I can understand that
  • I can imagine how you’d be thinking/feeling
  • Yes I understand that feeling (there may be a tiny window to disclose you know / have experienced that feeling or situation, and to disclose fully only upon invitation)
  • I’m guessing/imagining/wondering if you are thinking/ feeling/needing..?
  • Silence if body language is warm, responsive, respectful – nodding, eye contact, affection; as appropriate

Non-Empathetic Responses: (usually more about us, our assumptions, and judgement)

  • Sympathy – “You poor thing, aw little chicken..”etc (this can be accidently disrespectful)
  • Over-relating – “Yes I have that experience all the time and me and my story is…” (unless genuinely invited to)
  • One –Upmanship – bigger, better story of the same.. “Tell me about it, last time I tried to talk to my staff, one of them shot me in the ..”
  • Solution-finding  (unless requested)
  • Underhanded blame and criticism – “What have you done now? What did you do that for? That was silly, wasn’t it!” This is assuming, belittling, and infers incompetence in the Speaker.
  • Challenging them immediately before empathizing – “Are you sure this was the case of ..? Really?? Don’t you think that it could be….?” Instead you could wait for them to finish, and then ask if they would like to hear hear your thoughts on the topic.
  • Humour at their expense – Take the speaker seriously (unless you are confident you are empathizing with your humour and making the person feel understood and taken seriously in the process – if in doubt see how amused they are or check).
  • Distraction to another topic or shutting down the conversation – “That reminds me of that time a duck flew into my jeep and ate a.. I’m hungry, are you hungry?” If you are uncomfortable, you could say so gently.
  • Silence – this can be a cop-out and lack response (flat face and closed body language, lack of eye contact or non verbal response).
  • Once you have listened clearly, the floor may open for your say – depending on the situation.

One last thought.

If you do feel that a person is struggling to communicate their core message and is caught in a waffle, you could gently interrupt:

Getting to the point. “Excuse me, I just need to interrupt: I’m really interested… what’s the most important part of this to you?”


“Hey, I’m really interested in what you are saying, and I’d like to hear where you are going with this but I really need to go soon (or get back to work etc). I was wondering if you’d be able to tell the core part/main bit/punch line/summarized version of what you’d like to say?”


Making a better time.

“I’d like to hear you properly, is there a better time when we could continue this conversation?” Scheduling gives your time a boundary also.

Guessing the core need. “Hey, I’d like to jump in for just a moment and ask something”. Then here you can guess: “I was wondering, do you need …” or “you sound like you need to get some things off your chest. Have you thought about talking more in depth with (relevant person)?”

Another listener will be more useful. (But be sure that this really is the case). “This sounds really important but I’m not sure I’m the right person to hear this/ the best person for you to speak to.  I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on this / who you feel might be the best person to speak with?”

Wishing you great conversation.